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A Study in Ugliness

Ugly girls will never be happy, insisted Ms. Leocádia, standing in front of the blackboard. Simply put: never, ever, ever. And ugly, they knew, could mean a number of things: too short or too tall, too thin or too fat, too square or too round, with a big nose or a line for a mouth, a chin pointing forward, slouching shoulders, crooked legs, hairy arms. But we can fight nature with effort, she added after a pause. Even the ugliest girl in the world can be pretty with a little effort.

Everyone looked at Basília.

She had eyes like slits in a sharp face, a long body that towered over everyone else, a flat chest, a sallow complexion, a rat’s nest, a masculine gait. Basília, who wore pants under the skirt of her uniform, who cut her dense black hair short (it was lice, miss, I swear it was lice!), who had a scar in her jaw, who smoked as much as she could in the confinements of their boarding school. Well, Ms. Leocádia continued, looking at her, some cannot be saved.

And maybe she would not have been saved indeed, not from ugliness, but from boredom, if a pair of polished red shoes had not appeared on the other bed of her room the next day. Two leather slingbacks, high-heeled, four sizes smaller than her feet, with a little ribbon on each.

Basília thought it was a prank. The second bed of her room had been empty for years, as other students were afraid of her and she didn’t want company. Basília is coming, whispered a twelve-year-old as she walked down the corridor. We need to get out, hurry, hurry. The younger ones were so little that they looked like children close to her, and Basília felt a wicked pleasure in confirming their fears. Watch out, she slammed one of the walls with a fist, and they ran away, scaring the cat sleeping nearby.

She walked through the first floor of Santa Helena School for Young Ladies, past dramatic Romantic paintings and the enormous portrait of president Getúlio Vargas, past all classrooms, until she reached the last. Mondays had Portuguese, then Domestic Economy, French, and Literature, but at least she wouldn’t suffer another round of Moral Education.

Basília entered the room.

There was someone occupying the desk that was always vacant by her side. Basília couldn’t see her face, but she knew by her dark hair and small frame that she had never seen her before.

“Who the hell is that?” Basília barked the question in a low voice, stopping in front of another table.

Pérola raised her eyes, the large white bow on the top of her head bouncing with her. If there was anyone in the class who would know any fresh gossip, it would be her.

“Don’t talk to me here,” she whispered back, shoulders stiff, eyes on her open notebook. “I don’t want the others to see.”

Basília looked around. The class was not entirely full yet. She knelt beside Pérola, and pulled her by one of her ironed curls, forcing her to look at her face.

“Don’t play dumb with me,” warned Basília with a smile. She rubbed Pérola’s light hair with her thumb. “You didn’t complain the other day.”

“The other day was the other day!” Pérola snapped, then looked around to see if someone had listened. “What’s wrong with you?”

That’s wrong with me.” Basília pointed at the new girl with her chin. “Who is she and why no one told her to stay away from my place?”

Pérola frowned. “Why are you talking like that about Gilda, silly? You sleep in the same room as her for years.”

It really was a prank. Someone was trying to get back at her, and the new girl must have been from another class. She decided it didn’t matter; if they thought they could be bad, she could be ten times worse.

“So you were the one who left those shoes there,” answered Basília. “Fine. We’ll see, then.”

Pérola asked questions in whispers—Shoes? What are you talking about?—but Brasília had already left. Other girls were taking their places: know-it-all Aurélia in the first row, Efigênia with her thigh-length braid, muttering a prayer, her sister Estefânia, bigger and meaner, Carlota and Lurdes talking loudly as they entered the class, both wearing ridiculously big bows on their hairdos.

Basília sat down, still ignoring the new girl.

“Go back to your class,” she mouthed. “Before I drag you there myself.”

Ms. Palmira arrived. Their Portuguese teacher was a feeble thing, whose voice was so low that the classroom was filled with giggles every time she tried to command any kind of attention.

“Good morning, miss Gilda,” said Ms. Palmira with unlikely joy as she passed by their desks. “I’m eager to read your essay today.”

Basília could have believed that some of the professors were part of the prank, but not weak Ms. Palmira, who couldn’t even look at a student’s face.

“Thank you, teacher.”

The words came from the prettiest mouth Basília had ever seen. A well-drawn upper lip, a round lower one, half dark, half pink, corners upturned in a forever smile. Above was a delicate nose with wide nostrils, skin the same color of the mahogany walls, droopy eyes with a circle of green inside the brown. Her black hair fell in combed waves to her shoulders, and she had no bow, only the simple uniform of their school, with a white shirt under the sleeveless dress, and the same saddle shoes they were all wearing.

Gilda blinked at her with eyelashes as long as the legs of a spider, and smiled politely, her voice slow and pleasant like a purr:

“What happened, Basília? Don’t you remember me?”

No one else seemed to think there was something wrong with Gilda. The other teachers did not mention any transference, and all the other students insisted she had been there all along. What are are you, stupid? asked Estefânia, her hair pulled so tightly in a bun that her forehead was stretched back. Did you hit your ugly head? Her sister Efigênia didn’t bother answering, running away as if the demon could possess her if she stood too close to Basília.

She intercepted Carlota and Lurdes before dinnertime, pulling them both by the collars toward an empty cabinet. Why is everyone saying that Gilda has always been around? Basília shook Lurdes by the shoulders, who shrieked like she was about to get hit. Stop, you brute! Carlota grabbed Basília’s arm. We know that you’re crazy, but this is too much! You know Gilda for years!

Even Pérola, who Basília sometimes met in the woods around the school, insisted that she was losing her wits. Is this some kind of bad joke? Pérola whimpered when Basília pressed her against a tree, the little hypocrite, looking like she would faint when her stockings got dirty with mud. I always thought you were obsessed with her . . .

Enraged by their similar responses, she decided to solve the issue by herself. Basília observed Gilda during dinner, where she did nothing but eat the pumpkin soup that had been served, and then in the dormitory, where she spent most of the time reading a book. Basília considered questioning her when the lights were turned off, but she fell asleep and only woke up with a muffled sound a few hours later.

Gilda pushed the covers aside, took something from the nightstand, and touched the floor with one small foot.


The step was soft, almost impossible to hear. Tap. Gilda walked slowly in her nightgown, opened the door, and left.

Basília was not as silent as Gilda, who walked down the corridor with the grace of a ballerina, but the other girl didn’t seem to notice there was anyone behind her. If they got caught, the principal, Ms. Zulmira, would punish them in any way she saw fit, as she had done many times. Once, when she was thirteen, Basília had been forced to kneel on raw corn for three hours, and the headmistress watched the whole ordeal with evident satisfaction. You should remember this, Ms. Zulmira had said when they had to take her to the doctor so he would remove the corns stuck to her skin one by one. It’s what a delinquent like you deserves.

Gilda stopped in front of a large grandfather clock. The hands pointed eleven and fifty-nine, and she waited, her waves fluttering with the wind. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Gilda unlocked the tower of the clock with an iron key hanging from her neck, and the door flung open, revealing a mirror inside. Basília frowned, and the chime melody reverberated through the entire school.

As the Westminster Quarters rang, Gilda bent down. She had a tangerine in her right hand, orange and perfect even in the darkness, and took it toward the reflection. Basília pinched herself to make sure she was awake, but there they were: Gilda, half of her arm inside the mirror, and herself, watching from behind one of the pillars.

When the melody ended, the mirror spat out the tangerine—rotten, dark, bitten, and covered in maggots.

Gilda smiled, closed the grandfather clock, and walked in swift steps back to the dormitory, so giddy she looked like she was dancing.

Every night, Gilda would wait until all the lights had been turned off, and leave her bed to go back to the grandfather clock. When the windows were open, her nightgown inflated like a balloon as she walked, floating around her thin legs, then deflated, accompanying the breeze.

After the tangerine, it was a spoon. When it came back, its silver handle had been twisted several times until it formed a distorted spiral, and the head was rusty and full of holes. The following night, she threw a doll of one of the children inside, and the mirror spat out rags and ashes. Someone’s blue dress came back in shreds, and a bowl of milk pudding turned into a viscous dark substance with flies glued to it.

The rotten tangerine was found by one of the maids, but they assumed it had fallen from a student’s purse. The spoon was thrown in the trash. The ashes were found in the children’s dormitory, and the teachers ruled it a cruel prank. A girl found her ruined dress, and the maids again cleaned what was left of the pudding.

On the fifth night, when Gilda hurried to the door, Basília was already back to her feet, a quiet shadow standing behind her. She grabbed Gilda by the wrist and turned her around, almost making her drop the parcel she was holding.

“Not so fast,” said Basília, her other hand on the closed door. “Sneaking out at night again, are we?”

Gilda blinked, and looked at her frail wrist, engulfed by Basília’s fingers.

“You really noticed,” she said at last. “I’m surprised.”

“Your nightly endeavors? You weren’t too subtle.”

Gilda considered her with her large eyes. The green hue around the brown looked like the clumps of moss that clung to dead trunks outside of Santa Helena School, a thin layer of slime that often caused students to fall on the mud. She unwrapped the parcel to reveal a fat slice of orange cake.

“Would you like to see it?” She opened a wide smile. “Come.”

Gilda walked in quick steps, but soon she was sprinting toward the grandfather clock, carefree like a nymph. She guided Basília by the hand, small fingers intertwined to her long ones, smooth where Basília was dry and rough.

It was almost midnight when they arrived. Gilda dropped to her knees on the runner rug, leaving the parcel on her lap to unlock the tower and reveal the mirror.

The Westminster Quarters chime started again.

“Here, do it,” urged Gilda. “Before it ends.”

Basília took the cloth napkin from her hands, and before she could shove her arm inside the mirror, Gilda stopped her.

“You shouldn’t put it all inside,” she warned. “Unless you’re not worried about what might come from it.”

“Fine.” Basília threw the parcel inside the distorted reflection, watching it disappear as if a large mouth had just swallowed it.

When the clock stopped, the mirror returned their offering: the embroidered napkin was damp, and the cake was covered in greenish black mold festered with worms.

Gilda’s eyes sparkled even in the darkness. Now, the color was similar to the mold, rancid and decaying, contaminating the woody brown of her irises until the dark shade was completely gone.

“So I was right.” Basília stood in front of what was left of the food. “You’re not from here.”

“I did sleep in that room for many years, but you’re right—not here, no.” Gilda touched the mirror. After midnight, it was just a rectangular piece of glass with a thin coating of silver. “Things are not quite like they are here where I come from. Are you curious? About the other side?”

Beyond the mirror, there’s a topsy-turvy place, Gilda skipped happily toward the dormitory, the moonlight illuminating her soft features. Everything here is so pretty, so delicate, so marvelously stiff . . . It makes me want to break all of it.

Basília heard everything in silence, feeling, something change inside her. Have you ever tried a living being? Basília asked, and a different kind of smile appeared in Gilda’s face. No, she admitted. Good thing we have plenty of those around here, don’t you think?

Basília rolled under the blankets, wondering what could have happened if she, too, stepped into the mirror. At first, she imagined herself rotten, guts spilling out, flies buzzing in and out her hollow eyes. But no, that didn’t seem right. Instead, another image came to her mind: a dainty and perfect Basília, straight black hair curled with pins, a white ribbon on top of her head, red mouth drawn with lipstick, face shaped like clay until it was pretty enough.

Yes, that’s the effort I was talking about! Ms. Leocádia would praise with a big smile, and the other Basília would smile back.

She would excel at every class like Aurélia, pray in the chapel with Efigênia, reproach Estefânia whenever she was too rude, gossip with Carlota and Lurdes in the corridors. That Basília would dream of a husband, and would humor Pérola when she spoke of the most marriageable men in town.

Disgusting, she thought, opening her eyes. Absolutely disgusting.

But what about Gilda? Was she the only beautiful thing in a world that was upside down? Perhaps she had also changed when she crossed that mirror, her ugliness disappearing as soon as her new toes hit the ground. Basília liked that thought. It could be fun to force her back in to watch the prettiness disappear, just like it would be delightful to walk through the glass and find Gilda just as much as an outsider as she was.

“I’m content in my ugliness,” Basília said as they marched toward the dining hall the following morning. She chose to ignore how Pérola exchanged whispers with the others, questioning what she was doing to poor Gilda. “I fear most being trapped by their ideas of perfection. Let me rot any day.”

“Ugliness, you say . . . ” Gilda sat across from her, spoon in hand hovering over hot porridge. Winters were rarely cold enough to warrant a porridge, but the staff liked to pretend they were in Europe. “That’s not how I see it.”

“And how do you see it?”

“Sometimes, things are out of place. Sometimes, places are inadequate for the things in them.” Gilda stole a spoonful of porridge from Basília’s bowl. “But I do like where I come from, and I have the feeling you might like it as well.”

“I think you want to come back all shattered and spoiled.” Basília smirked, taking the spoon from her hand to have a bite. “What, are you planning to use me as an experiment?”

Gilda smiled.

“Goodness, no! I want us to help each other, can’t you see?”

If the place is inadequate for you, Gilda hugged Basília’s arm as they walked toward the classroom. Let’s make it more adequate. Together, they decided that their first real victim could not be human. A small animal, perhaps, or part of a larger being.

I have an idea, said Basília, eyeing Efigênia as she made the sign of the cross. Her long straight hair was the only one besides hers that was not curled, combed, ribboned or pulled in a meticulous style, and instead fell down her back until the back of her thighs. It was a promise, Efigênia had claimed, a promise to the Lord. Well, Basília had never cared about promises, but she did remember every time Efigênia went to the principal’s office to denounce any perceived slight.

Basília didn’t follow the rules, she would say, knowing very well that Basília would be punished for that. Basília said a dirty word. For years, she had been convinced that Efigênia truly believed she was doing the right thing. But one day she saw it: as Ms. Zulmira struck her palms with a rattan cane, making Basília count out loud the number of times, Efigênia was there, watching eagerly from the keyhole. She likes it, she realized then, switching eleven for twelve, a failure that added five strikes to her punishment. Pig.

When Basília exposed her plan, Gilda looked like she would burst with excitement. I can do it for you. She touched Basília’s cropped hair, cut so roughly it had bald spots. No, I would love to do it for you.

After everyone went to sleep, and the school was silent except for the tick-tocking of the clock, Gilda rose from her bed.

Basília opened the door for her, and she walked quietly, cradling the scissors like a child. Third room at your left, whispered Basília, but careful with the other one. Gilda skipped to their dormitory, her shadow spinning and twirling, and her hand falling on the doorknob.

For a moment, Basília couldn’t breathe. She expected to hear Efigênia screaming in horror at seeing a demon over her bed, and Estefânia would wake at once to protect her sister. Estefânia, who smiled triumphantly whenever Ms. Leocádia spoke of the wonders of femininity while looking directly into Basília’s dark eyes, as if saying you, yes, you, so different from the rest of us, but smacked the girls who didn’t obey her every whim . . .

Estefânia could overpower Gilda in no time, and Efigênia would do the rest: oh, Ms. Zulmira, what did I ever do against her?

No one screamed when Gilda walked past the door, closing it behind her back. She no longer had the scissors, only a long mouse-colored braid that she whirled between her fingers, glancing at Basília with a smile. Come, she seemed to say. Come.

Basília ran after her down the long rug that muffled the sounds of their feet. Gilda tittered, the braid whipping the air like a cat’s tail, and she stopped in front of the grandfather clock.

The iron hands pointed at eleven fifty-seven.

“I wonder how long it will take her to notice.” Gilda placed the braid around Basília’s neck like rope.

“As soon as she wakes up, I hope.”

“Maybe I should cut all their hair . . . ” Gilda’s finger brushed the hair sticking out of the braid. “And they would all be like you.”

The Westminster Quarters began to chime, and the sound reverberated inside Basília’s chest, her ears ringing and her fingers trembling with excitement.

“Together?” Gilda asked, and they threw the braid inside.

A high-pitched scream woke them up. Basília jumped out of the bed and looked at Gilda, whose eyes grew as the sound echoed through the second floor. Her spidery eyelashes, long and black, fluttered, and her eyes looked fully green and mold-like.

The yelling continued, but now it wasn’t only one voice. One, two, three, four voices shrieked, and hurried steps came from the stairs. Teachers knocked on every room, until they appeared on theirs.

“Explain yourself!” Ms. Leocádia said right away, grabbing Basília by the face. “What is the meaning of this?”

“Good morning to you too, miss.”

“This might be the last straw, Basília,” she warned, dark circles under her eyes and disheveled hair caught in several pink rollers. “But I believe in redemption. If you admit and apologize, maybe . . . ”

“What happened, Ms. Leocádia?” asked Gilda in a sweet voice. “A robbery? Is anybody hurt?”

“Someone—It’s very unsettling, in fact. Why did you cut the other girls’ hairs, Basília? And the other thing . . . It’s too much, even for you.”

Basília blinked.

“Girls . . . ?”

“Basília did nothing wrong!” Gilda clutched her own chest. It would be too obvious to anyone who knew her true face, but Ms. Leocádia seemed to believe her. “She was here the whole night. I would know, since I could barely sleep with her snoring.”

Ms. Leocádia grimaced. “Are you absolutely sure, Gilda?”

“Yes, Ms. Leocádia.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eyes. “I did hear some noises, but I assumed it was just one of the girls going to the bathroom, and I didn’t want to be indiscreet.”

“Heavens, this is even worse than I thought . . . ” murmured Leocádia to herself as she left the room.

Outside, Basília recognized at once the long shape in the middle, gurgling in a pool of dark blood: pig intestines, pinkish and raw, around twenty meters in length, moving with life of its own. When they had dragged it from the mirror, it was dry and soft, but as soon as they left it on the floor, something thick and viscous leaked, and the bowels pulsated since then.

Efigênia was on her knees, but she wasn’t praying. She stared at the intestines, touching her own short hair, her golden cross sparkling. Tears trailed down her pale face, but the one who wept loudly was Estefânia, whose bun had also disappeared, leaving only fine strands that barely covered her scalp. The other girls had been affected too: Aurélia’s hair was cropped like a man’s, and Lurdes cried, touching her bald head.

“When . . . ?” Basília asked without moving her mouth.

Gilda hid a smile.

The only ones who had not been attacked were Gilda, whose beautiful black curls fell effortlessly on her shoulders, Carlota, who tried to comfort Lurdes while her cat sniffed the bowels, and Pérola, whose skin had blanched to an unnatural grayish white. Apparently, the scissors had been found under Efigênia’s blanket, and there whispers in the dining room that she was the one who did it. Both to herself and the others, commented a thirteen-year-old, glancing at them. Laughing like the devil, I heard . . .

Instead of Moral Education, Ms. Leocádia and Ms. Palmira spent the entire period fixing their hairs. They brushed spiky strands, tied ribbons, and gave Lurdes a headscarf.

There, there, sweetheart, said Ms. Palmira, gentler than any student had ever been to her. You’re a beautiful girl, and hair grows back. Ms. Leocádia wasn’t as sweet, but she did her part in cheering them up: Soon, you will be able to style your hair like Ingrid Bergman in her last movie.

Still, they were all interrogated by the headmistress. Ms. Zulmira left her cane on the table, frowning behind her glasses as the students stumbled. Usually, Basília would have been the main suspect, but whatever Gilda said when it was her turn had changed Zulmira’s focus to Pérola and Carlota, whose nurtured manes had not been damaged, and Efigênia herself, who had the scissors and an excessive concern regarding demonic possessions.

“I’m quite surprised you don’t seem to be involved in this incident,” admitted the principal. Behind her was another portrait of President Vargas, of whom she was a fervent admirer, and an ironed suit jacket that she bought from a collector, convinced that it had belonged to the man. “I’m most concerned about the pig bowels; I don’t know what kind of delinquent we have in this school that would have managed such a feat . . . ”

“It’s too wicked even for me, headmistress.” Basília walked toward the door. “But I will report back if I hear anything.”

Gilda and Basília spent the rest of the day bursting into laughter whenever they thought of the pulsating organ that had to be removed from the corridor. It was good, the feeling that she could get back at them, all of them, that she could ruin that school like she had always dreamed.

They will never find out who did it, Gilda promised as they walked in the woods. Other students were playing domino or cards after cleaning their dormitories and helping in the kitchens. But the others will know that someone’s for their throats.

“Have you heard anything, Pérola?” Carlota asked later in the common room. Her Persian cat meowed in her lap as she brushed her fluffy white fur. “You always know what happens in the school before everyone.”

She glanced at Basília, who was smoking near the window.

“I haven’t.” Pérola, painting her almond-shaped nails with coral lacquer in a half-moon, made her best to pretend they were alone in the room, and that the strong smell of smoke was not giving her allergies. It bothers my nose, she would tell her friends, curling her mouth in disgust, but whenever they were alone, she would smell the collar of Basília’s shirt, rubbing her face against her neck. “Who could possibly be so horrid . . . ?”

“If it had been me, I would have come for the two of you first,” said Basília, blowing a smoke ring. Gilda had styled her hair that afternoon: she smoothed it with pomade, parted it on one side, and combed it over to create a wave. It wasn’t perfect, for sure, but it was better than anything she had ever done on her own. “Chop chop.”

“Why are you talking to us?” Pérola grabbed the skirt of her dress so tightly that her knuckles went white. “Are you trying to intimidate us?”

“Don’t listen to her,” Carlota whispered. “She might . . . ”

“She might what? As far as I know, you two did it.” Basília laughed and put out the cigarette against the window, ashes falling on the carpeted floor. “Wiping out the competition, who knows?”

“I don’t understand you. We have been nothing but polite to you, but you keep disrespecting us.” Pérola’s voice broke at the last us. She seemed to be trying very hard to keep talking, which surprised Basília, as she had always found Pérola to be particularly cold. “I wish you nothing but the best, Basília, and yet . . . Why can’t you grow up?”

A coy tear fell from her face, then another, and another. Pérola’s cheeks were red, and she sniffled, covering her face. The cat jumped to the floor, and Carlota hurried to hug Pérola, caressing her hair and murmuring words of comfort. She has no heart, Carlota soon started to cry too, as if the tears were a contagious virus.

Basília was stunned. Carlota pulled Pérola by the arm, telling her they should go to Ms. Leocádia’s office and report how cruelly Basília had behaved. Before she hurts someone else, they said.

Their next target was the cat. Fifi, the white Persian purchased by Carlota’s parents on her fifteen-year-old birthday, lived in Santa Helena School since then, and roamed the building at night while her owner slept. It was Gilda’s idea; when Basília told her what happened, her eyes went from the color of a Brazil nut to the same shade of the fern hanging near the window of the classroom.

For a second, Basília had expected Gilda to lash out. She looked so furious that her teeth had sunk into her lower lip, and a scarlet drop sprouted from it when she smiled. We need a living being, right? Gilda smeared the blood with her thumb. Let’s see what happens now.

Their agreement was that Basília would wait near the grandfather clock while Gilda lured Fifi toward it with pieces of chicken from the galinhada leftovers. Fifi went after the trail of meat, eating piece by piece as she followed Gilda through the runner rug.

Come, kitty, she sang, looking at Basília from over her shoulder. Eleven and fifty-eight.

When they were close enough, Gilda took the cat in her arms.

“I wonder what will happen to her . . . ” She petted Fifi’s head, and threw the cat brusquely inside the mirror. “See you later, kitty.”

The clock continued for a long minute. When the school turned silent again, a shadow jumped from the other side, trespassing the glass like it was liquid. Fifi was back, but she looked like she had been turned inside out: she no longer had fur, her gum and fangs were exposed, her muscles had a few patches of yellow fat, and her organs hung from her pouch as she walked, releasing a fetid smell.

A grotesque sight, Fifi was, but she meowed and moved like any other cat. There were tufts of white hair scattered around her body, and her legs had been bent until they were turned backwards.

Gilda looked at Basília, her crystalline giggle the only thing that could be heard in the night:

“She looks lovely now.”

Fifi left behind little paw prints on the floor, as if her pink pads had been dipped in tar. The two ran after her, muffling their laughter with their hands, wondering what the headmistress would say. She just woke up like this, Ms. Zulmira, Basília pretended to talk like Carlota, adjusting an invisible bow. I swear I had nothing to do with this, ma’am!

Gilda pulled Basília to enter the room, breathing heavily when they stopped in front of each other. The closed door gave Basília the impression they were somewhere else: a place that could not be accessed by others, far away from what they had just done, no matter how close the other girls were.

“I want to go with you,” she announced, eyes fixed on Gilda’s. “Through the mirror.”

The other girl smiled. Her chest went up and down under the nightgown, and Basília took the curls from her collarbone.

“Even if we don’t know what might happen to you?” Gilda touched the front of Basília’s pajamas.

“Does it matter? The cat is doing well.” Basília mirrored her, playing with the straps of Gilda’s nightgown like Gilda was playing with her buttons. One of the straps slipped to her arm, and the other followed. “Besides, I’m much more interested in knowing what will happen to your pretty face. I want to see how hideous you can get.”

The nightgown fell on the floor, pooling itself around Gilda’s feet like a white cloud. Basília admired her, considering that could be the last time she would see her like this, beautiful and perfect. Gilda threw her arms around her neck, bringing Basília closer to kiss her lips, and Basília hooked her waist.

Outside, the cat meowed, sounding more guttural than she should, like something else had come with her from the side beyond the mirror. When Carlota woke up and started to shout, neither Basília nor Gilda moved from bed.

Friday would be her last day at Santa Helena. Basília buttoned her shirt, wore the washed-out blue dress, and the pants she preferred to have underneath. She sat on the mattress while Gilda brushed her hair, styling it with pomade. If she stayed, she would never know how long she could still have this almost freedom allowed by the teachers. They complained, yes, but nothing had ever gotten out of hand. Her parents were oblivious, and Ms. Zulmira had parroted to them the same story Basília had told about her hair: it was lice, miss, I swear it was lice.

How long until their fine line of patience broke? The summer of her seventeen years? She was not ready to have her insides pulled and twisted like the mirror had done to the cat. Not in the way she feared, at least—the other side could deform her as much as it pleased.

“It’s going to happen tonight,” Gilda reminded her under her breath, with a discreet red spot appearing under her jaw. “I can’t wait, can you?”

Carlota was absent during most of the classes, but came back for Moral Education at the last period with Fifi in her arms.

“The veterinarian assured me it’s a skin disease,” Carlota said as the other girls surrounded her. Lurdes covered her nose, disgusted by the smell, but Carlota kept petting Fifi’s head. “But it’s nothing serious. Her health is fine otherwise.”

“Maybe it would be more compassionate if you  . . . ” suggested Pérola, but Carlota brought the animal closer to her chest.

“No! It’s Fifi, the same Fifi, she’s just . . . ” Carlota glanced at the cat. She smelled rotten, and started to boredly lick her paws. “No. I can take care of her.”

Pérola glanced at Basília, the only one who was far from the circle. Even Gilda was there, cooing at Fifi and petting her exposed muscle.

The circle dissipated when Prof. Leocádia arrived, and their eyes turned to the blackboard. No more of you, Basília thought with a grin, no more of any of you. Every minute that passed, she felt closer to the mirror and further away from them. Away from the gossip, away from the frills and dresses, away from the passive-aggressiveness. Whenever their eyes met, Gilda smiled reassuringly, as if saying: soon, soon.

At night, Gilda appeared in the dormitory with something folded in her arms. The suit jacket from Ms. Zulmira’s office, Basília realized.

“Here.” She helped Basília wear the white shirt, the pants, and the jacket. “Looking all proper now.”

Gilda was still in the nightgown, but she slipped inside the red shoes that glittered as she walked.

“Shall we?” asked Basília, taking her by the hand and opening the door.

The runner rug still had the black stains of Fifi’s paw prints, and they walked on it until they reached the grandfather clock. The large windows showed dark trees outside, and the moon cast a soft glimmer.

Gilda knelt in front of the clock.

“Don’t let go of my hand.” The Westminster Quarters started, and she trespassed the mirror, swallowed by her own reflection. Only Gilda’s hand remained on that side, still grasping hers.

Before Basília could follow, someone touched her shoulder.

Pérola stood behind her, trembling in her own nightgown. Her light brown hair fell limp on her shoulders, straight and brittle, and her nails looked transparent without the polish.

“I saw it,” she murmured. “Everything. The braid, the cat, and everything before it.”

Basília looked from Pérola to the mirror. The chiming continued.


Tears fell down Pérola’s face and dripped down her pointy chin. Her fingers still held Basília’s suit, but not as strongly as Gilda’s grasp.

“Of course, you’re going to cry about it.” Basília smirked, feeling like terrorizing one of them for the last time. “Why, Pérola, let me remind you that you don’t have an audience today.”

“Why did you only attack the others?” This time, it wasn’t the delicate and dignified tears she had seen before, but a low, ugly sound, and Basília found herself shocked that Pérola might have meant it. “Am I that unimportant?”

The hands of the clock were almost reaching twelve and one.

“Oh, so you’re jealous, that’s what it is.” Basília looked at Gilda’s hand, still holding hers, and her smile grew. “Not enough to talk to me in public. Not enough to defend me. Just jealous. Well, if you want it so much, you can jump after me, but you would have to leave your tears and bobby pins behind.”

Pérola didn’t move.

Before she could hear an answer, Gilda pulled her, and Basília reached the other side.

About the Author

H. Pueyo (@hachepueyo on Twitter) is an Argentine-Brazilian writer of speculative fiction. She’s an Otherwise Fellow, and her work has appeared before in F&SF, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fireside, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, among others. Her bilingual debut collection A Study in Ugliness & Outras Histórias is out by Lethe Press, and can be found at